The Guru speaks: John Marks

Professional Reviewer Questions

1. Without giving the standard "weakest link" answer, what would you as the most important component?
It is not a component but rather an effect or a phenomenon: the interaction between the loudspeaker and the listening room. That is the most important thing, and if it is fundamentally wrong, however good everything else might be in theory or in a vacuum, doesn't mean beans. When I say interaction I mean the appropriateness of the loudspeakers for the size of the room, the location of the loudspeakers in the room, the location of the listening position, the balance of reflectivity, absorption, and diffusion in the room's surfaces and contents, etc. Next most important is the ability of the amplifier to drive the loudspeaker in terms of its needs for current, damping factor, etc., and its timbral qualities. In professional situations, we always start with the speakers and the room as a system, and the rest picks up the rear. Some hobbyists fall in love with an amp or a piece of cable, and then try to walk backwards from there, usually without much success, or at least wasting a lot of money in the process.

2. How did you cross over from hobbyist to professional writer?
I was already a record producer and sometimes reviewer of live classical concerts for a daily newspaper.

3. Review superlatives often give the impression of "huge gains". How do you > reconcile years of "huge gains" against the "great sound" years ago?
I take those to mean different things. Objectively, a contemporary digital recording played back on a contemporary digital player has frequency and dynamic range, and an absence of artifacts such as wow and flutter, that far surpass the LPs made from analog tape forty years ago. But subjectively, there is a perception of "rightness" to those old recordings such as Charles Munch's "La Mer" with the BSO. Whether that subjective impression is the result of habituation and nostalgia, or whether there is really something organic being preserved there: the jury is still out. Two more observations: loudspeakers particularly have made great gains in the past ten years, and, more importantly, the trickle-down effect has been substantial.

4. Is the sound often simply different and not better?
Well, sure. But if you work at things in a disciplined manner, with some sort of objective reference, real progress will be made. And again, I am speaking mostly to professional rather than hobbyist audio. If somebody wants to design a tube amp that sounds charming to himself and his friends, and the amp happens to function as a dynamic compressor, in that the output's relationship to the input is not linear but proportional, hey, that's fine. That amp might solve somebody's acoustical problem, such as room resonances that kick in only above a certain SPL. I am not going to cast the first stone, but I would also trust John Atkinson to point that quirk out in his measurements. I also think that it is important to remember that a master tape is only a tool, and that it most likely represents less than all of what was going on at the recording session. If you sit down in front at Symphony Hall, you hear one sound, in the back under the balcony a different sound, and in the second balcony a completely different sound. So rather than obsess about the "absolute sound," I think a more productive inquiry is whether a sound has validity. Is this playback system rendering a valid (meaning capable of being validated) representation of a real acoustical event? If so, we can accept that a basically valid sound can be made by panel speakers or cones or horns, and they are all going to miss the boat to a greater or lesser extent. And the determination of which less-than-total validity appeals to any person the most, will have a large subjective component. But without question, some reproduced sound is objectively more accurate, although to some people, a different sound will be more pleasing.

5. Do you have a clear metal image of great sound or does it require constant renewal?
Both. I retain a clear subjective emotional impression of the sound the first time I played in a city-wide school orchestra, 40 years ago, and I hear music of some kind every week. > Are you in AB hell? No. If I have to strain to hear a difference or there is a risk I am imagining I am hearing one, I am not going to strain at gnats. I am a big-picture guy.

6. What are your audition strong points and weak points, i.e., what problems do you find most difficult to pick up in listening tests?
I think of it not so much as strong and weak points as personal preferences. Timbre for me is the sine qua non. I can't trade off timbral accuracy for anything else. I know that horns have great transient dynamics, but most of them for me don't do timbres right, so I am not that interested. Timbre, followed by a sense of intimacy with the acoustical environment being reproduced, followed by a sense of envelopment in the acoustic being reproduced, are the things I focus on most. Dynamics and image size are things I usually don't spend a lot of time obsessing over, unless we are talking about gross distortions. > What do you "hate > to admit"? I never set myself up as judge jury and executioner, so I don't have any large public image a la Citizen Kane to live up to, so I don't hate to admit much. People can read my writing for long enough to figure out whether my preferences and formative experiences are going to result in advice that works for them. If so, great; if not, no hard feelings.

7. What to you think is that "special something" is that makes some systems sound so good?
If I could put my finger on that in meaningful terms, by which I mean some reproducible engineering datum, I assume I'd be rich. The French phrase is "quelque chose de je ne sais quoi" which roughly translated means "I know it when I hear it but can't explain it." To me a great-sounding system has a quality that draws you into the music and the acoustical environment being reproduced. And in this regard, a smaller yet cleaner window that looks upon a more distant scene, is to me preferable to a huge smudgy window right in front of something huge but somehow unrealistic. The difference is between a movie of a live person and being right next to an Animatronic dummy from Disneyland. Coherence in timbre from top to bottom, true timbres, and a sense of continuousness in the music are all important to me. By continuousness, I mean that you hear the middles as well as the beginnings and endings of notes. So perhaps I am the other side of the PRAT coin. And "jump factor" doesn't mean much to me, either. But I listen to string quartets a lot, and the blues not much at all.

8. How much of the process is collaborative versus on your own?
99% myself, alone.

9. The constant evaluations and power listening must be very hard. How do you keep it fresh?
I don't think of it as hard. Sometimes I have to exert effort to try to figure out why something which is obviously competent nonetheless does not excite me.

10. What are some of the secret terms you use to lets us know the component > really is not as good as it could be?
I don't think I have any such terms, because I choose what I write about.

11. Someone recently said, "All SS amps not driven to clip sound the same". > Do all SS amps sound the same at moderate levels?
Of course not, that is as silly as saying that all competently-vintnered Chardonnays of the same alcohol content and within 20% of each others' price taste the same. Anyone who cannot hear the timbral differences, at moderate levels, between, say, a darTZeel, a Plinius, and a Bryston (assuming timbrally-revealing speakers), well, I think that to state the proposition proves it.

12. Which components are peaking in the sense that you no longer have to spend > a lot to get great sound?
DACs, obviously. Amps have come a long way in terms of value for money. Speakers will always be a problem in terms of cost because due to the logarithmic nature of frequencies, going down one octave means the speaker has to reproduce wavelengths twice as long, which usually means a bigger box or larger panel, or problems with impedance and roll-off slope. Getting the bottom four bass notes at the same level as the ones above can mean going from a $20,000/pair speaker to a $40-50,000/pair speaker.

13. When you get cornered at a party, what is the question asked most often?
I tend not to get cornered, or asked questions other than social pleasantries. How am I doing? I am doing fine, thanks.

14. How much should we envy Sea Cliff, really?
Not much. Bob Ludwig's room at Gateway Mastering: that, you should envy.

15. What is the best listening experience you have ever had (other than live)?
A three-way tie between: Some years back at CES Las Vegas, an all-Audio Note Japan system. Stupid large money, not much bass to speak of from $19,000 two-way bookshelf speakers, but the insight into the Mahler-Wheeler 10th recording was transfixing. Or: one of my own recordings at CES on Shahinian Diapasons. Or: Ella Fitzgerald's "Easy to Love" on the Wilson-Benesch ACT Ones I wrote up in TAS #116 (IIRC).

16. Without blaming engineers, where do you think the most loss in sound > quality occurs, live to listener?
Listening-room acoustics.

17. Have you ever been wowed by a $500-$1000 system?
Not that I presently recall.

18. How much in analog is really the "Zen of analog" versus true accuracy of reproduction?

19. Will we ever find the Holy Grail in sound reproduction?
That is a less-important question than whether music can help people answer to the angels of their better natures. A purpose-built room filled with equipment that lets you hear it all from 16 Hz up to whatever your upper limit is, to today's best practices, can be done somewhere in the $500,000 to $1,000,000 range. But query whether the subjective and emotional aspect of that system can surpass listening to the opera broadcast over a portable radio in a ratty student apartment, with someone you love? I've never met anyone who really wanted to spend any certain amount of money on audio equipment; as far as I can tell, everyone I have dealt with has wanted to become happier by bringing beauty into their lives. Engineering can help in that quest but ultimately, it is a transcendent quest. Engineering problems have divergent solutions, in that the optimal solutions get closer together as they get more optimal. Human problems have divergent solutions. A Waldorf school might be best for one kid, a military academy for another. Hearing and memory and emotion are so intertwined on such a deep level, that I am very willing to let other people listen to systems that I would prefer not to, as long as those systems make them happy.

20. So, which is it, tubes or SS?
Solid state, unless the circumstances clearly indicate otherwise. Which happens.

21. What does the future hold for audio?
Cheap-fi and mid-fi will keep getting better (although at a slower rate than before); more "stereo shop" dealers will go under. Most new homes other than starter homes will have audio in most rooms, from ceiling or wall speakers picked out by the builder, and those will be fine for most people. The high-end audio hobby will mature and consolidate to the point it is like chess or wooden boats, a passion for a few folks who can afford the time or the money. This trend could be slowed down if more audio dealers made professional efforts at reaching out to non-audio hobbyists who either value music as such or enjoy owning fine things. Lots of people who attend opera or symphony concerts could afford a good $7,500 or so two-channel system, and if they were sold on the benefits rather than the technology, might buy one. Instead, they have Bose Wave Radios because that is what the classical-music DJ tells them he has at home. Too many audio dealers are stuck in the mode of selling wire upgrades to a small number of hobbyists. I know that selling music in an age of video is tough, but it can be done.

John Marks is associated with JMRCDs and Stereophile.

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Copyright: Peter J. Smith 2005 Return to